JOHN STONES seemed to be crumbling under the pressure at the start of his Manchester City career.
The 23-year-old Yorkshireman’s calm assurance on the ball and passing ability has seen him likened to German World Cup-winning legend Franz Beckenbauer.
Der Kaiser is a tough act to follow but Stones has been an integral part of City’s impressive start to the season.
Currently, no player in Europe’s top five leagues has a higher pass success rate than him — a whopping 97 per cent.
The next 2½ weeks should give a decent indication of how Stones is progressing.
After today’s trip to West Brom, City face a Champions League return against free-scoring Napoli on Wednesday.
A week tomorrow Arsenal visit the Etihad, boasting star trio Alexis Sanchez, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Ozil in their ranks.
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And then England have Wembley friendlies lined up against Germany and Brazil — the latter pitching him against team-mate Gabriel Jesus and £198million world-record signing Neymar.
Stones — who was given a lesson by Neymar and Barcelona in a 4-0 Champions League defeat last year — is playing with such confidence that he will relish such showdowns.
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The former Everton man said: “There’s no fear. Playing against the top names, everyone wants to be the best they can and you have to prove yourself against the best.
“It’s always a challenge but I look forward to it.
“It will be a different scenario against Brazil.
“Playing for England, a different team from City, and Neymar’s with Brazil not Barcelona. It’ll be different but it’s another challenge.
“With the World Cup as well, I hope it’s a great season for me, a chance to show what I can do. I watch a lot of football and watch other players, not just defenders or strikers but football in general.
“Early on there wasn’t anyone I modelled my game on but as I got older I watched Rio Ferdinand and liked how he played.”
To hear Stones talking with such confidence is encouraging.
He came under fire during a tough first season at City following a £47.5m move from Everton. But boss Pep Guardiola stood by him.
The hefty transfer fee seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders last season.
But Stones told Sport360: “I didn’t feel any pressure because of the price tag.
“A lot of things get overseen by a few results and that sticks in people’s minds.
“But if everyone looks and sees how I defended, how I wanted to play, they would change their opinion.”
The critics have gone quiet now, though, as Stones has enjoyed a superb start to the season.
Stones added: “It’s just down to hard work on the pitch. I am always looking to improve and the team and gaffer are pushing us to do it.
“The desire, workrate and wanting to learn and improve day in, day out, is showing out there in games.
“Things are just clicking now. We are improving as a back four and as a team. It has just all gelled.”
This is Guardiola’s second season at City and the signs are good.
Stones added: “Hopefully, we can dominate for years.
“Every team has their qualities but we want those challenges and are ready for them.
“Our mindset is to go out there and play our game.”
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